The Council of Chozanti
This is the fifth in a series of stories written by Arinn Dembo describing various bits of backstory in the SotS universe. It takes place after the events of the first four stories: Incident at Ko'Grappa, Incident at Avalon, Escape From Avalon, and Rendezvous at Ke'Vanthu. It is followed by The Battle of the Jade Mirror. The original post and discussion can be found on the Kerberos Forum.
The shuttle descended in a deep indigo sky, the stars above blazing through the thin atmosphere with feverish clarity. Cai Rui folded his hands over his abdomen as a few wisps of cloud trailed by — his seat was locked into the sleeping position, tilted all the way back to face the night sky. He had to roll nearly all the way over to see the sparkling domes of the city below, swarming with hundreds of red lights — like a dozen glass bells filled with fireflies.
He sighed and shifted awkwardly, trying to find a comfortable position. Neither the hastily re–tailored suit nor the cradle seat was specifically designed for his anatomy. As the bird set its skids down on the landing pad, his position rocked back and forth like a hammock. He found himself looking enviously at the Tarka pilot seated beside him, sitting up and holding herself serenely steady with a securely wrapped tail.
The shuttle set its skids on the landing pad, and the landing lights all around them went from blue to red. Cai Rui unbuckled himself from the rig and the young Tarka helped him out of the chair. She remained at his side solicitously as he walked to the door of the shuttle. The hydraulic elevator slowly lowered them into the base.
The final set of blast doors sealed above and sounded a triple klaxon. The pilot opened her shuttle doors, dropped the ramp to the blackened steel pad, and walked to the sealed entrance. She entered the code and spoke to the receiver mounted on the wall. “Kala Kuumak'Orr arriving,” she said. “With a guest.”
The doors slid back instantly. Cai Rui flinched and took a step back, despite his best intentions. Two towering Hiver warriors stood just on the opposite side of the door, the nearest heavily plated thorax just inches from his face.
Damned Hivers. No sense of personal space.
The creature's armor was mottled gray and black, arranged in a camouflage pattern over his carapace. He wore bandoliers of ammunition wrapped around the chest and abdomen, over a gray and black flak jacket. Red leather sheathes were strapped over the lower portion of each forelimb, from the joint to the wrist — they covered the jutting steel fighting blades bolted to his body. The tooled hide of the sheathes bore a silver hexagon of rank, and had been worked into a complex, seemingly abstract geometric pattern. One mitt was wrapped around the shaft of a nasty–looking spear.
He looked up into its eyes, shining behind the barred visor of its helm, and suppressed an inward shiver. There had been a ceasefire in effect for nearly two years, but the pit of his stomach still went cold at the sight of a Hiver.
The voice was low and metallic, speaking Tarkasian with a thick Hiver accent — a buzzing slur of any sound which required a tongue. “You will be escorted to the council chamber. Follow, please.”
The warrior turned and clashed down the hallway, marching at a ceremonial pace which was, coincidentally, as fast as his charges could walk without breaking into a run. Glancing to the side, Cai Rui saw that the Tarka girl seemed happy. She took off her helmet as they walked, and drew a few deep, deliberate breaths of the canned air. When she noticed he was watching, she turned to him with smiling eyes and gave him a very human thumb's up of encouragement.
So much like her mother. There was a pang in his chest as he smiled back. The girl owed much to Sara in manner and grace, and she had her mother's leaf–green eyes — but her markings were more like her father's, bands of deep violet and black. It was easy to see why she had been named “Kala” — she was beautiful even to a human eye. He was amused that she still gave her surname as “Kuumak'Orr”, declaring her mother's former rank and her father's clan.
Still declares herself a daughter of the Supreme, he thought. She invites attack. Perhaps this one will join the Council herself someday.
Following her lead, he removed his own helmet. She was right — the air was fine, and if anything rather sweet. Nothing at all like the dead canned stuff he would expect in a Human or Tarka dome. He had heard that Hiver air recyclers were much in demand — the trade ships couldn't ever carry enough of them. Walking through these halls, it was easy to see why.
As he walked he carried the helm in his left hand, still favoring the right shoulder. Ishii had managed to close the wound completely, but the cracked bone was still not fully knitted. Despite Sara's assurances, a few interesting days in Ishii's company had revealed that the Liir was not primarily a healer.
The Hiver led them around a curve and thumped the butt of his spear in a syncopated rhythm on the echoing floor. The double blast doors opened, revealing a vast hexagonal room with a large hexagonal table placed in the center. Instantly there was a hush, as when a great deal of murmured talk is silenced at once.
“Kala Kuumak'Orr,” the Hiver warrior buzzed, announcing them to the assembly. “And her guest.”
Around the table a number of chairs and sitting platforms had been placed, built to accommodate various species. Sara was already seated on one side, along with several other members of a Tarka delegation — beside her there was a massive male, but Cai Rui did not recognize him. Kala winked and went to sit with the rest of the Tarka delegation, leaving him standing alone in the floor.
Already the talk had resumed, a low murmur of many voices speaking softly in many languages. Cai Rui looked around the room, trying to take in as much detail as possible. The walls were honeycombed with hexagonal chambers, each one planted with some kind of orchid — the blooms were large, opulent in red and gold, and they filled the air with a smell like honey and cinnamon. A large Hiver faction sat on the far side of the table, workers and warriors separated into two groups and seated around two sides of the hexagon — a wide space was left open between them.
Ishii had been given a full side of the hexagon by herself, the bulk of her battlesuit resting on its nest of steel tentacles. A single lonely chair was set along another empty edge of the table. His Hiver escort indicated the seat and Cai Rui walked to it, feeling very awkward and exposed. He sat down, placing his helmet on the table beside him.
The warrior thumped his spear again. Again the room was hushed, as the Hivers at the table turned expectantly. On the far side of the chamber, two more warriors opened a second set of doors. Everyone in the room rose, including the Tarka faction — Cai Rui hastily followed suit.
The blast doors of the chamber were massive, over 3 meters high and twice as wide. Nonetheless their host had to duck his head as he entered the room, so as not to brush the top of his crest on the lintel. He was a Hiver Prince, his body the color of swirling, opalescent gray smoke, his armor dappled with black. His headdress was coated with an intricate plating of shining steel, and he wore an enameled steel breastplate over his thorax. The floor rang beneath his steel–shod feet as he strode into the chamber, moving with the swift and deceptively light grace of a thoroughbred. As he approached the table he spread his massive wings and arms — the shining refractive membranes broke the light into prismatic rainbows on the chamber floor, and when they rattled they made a sound like a hard rain on a dozen tin roofs. All of his assembled people answered him with four decisive, percussive thumps over the armor of the chest — including the Tarka. Even Ishii had balled one of her tentacles into a fist and used it to pound the floor.
An entourage of Hiver workers followed quietly behind him, rolling along a wheeled cart which was draped with bright brocade. As the massive Hiver reached the table, the warrior behind Cai Rui buzzed out his title in Tarka: “Behold His Majesty, son of the High Queen Radiant Frost, patriarch of the Blue Sun and the Red Sun Clans, Protector and Regent to the nest of Chozanti, Strategist of the Imperial Fleet, our Lord Father Prince Che'zokin the Twice–Born.”
A single massive thump of greeting followed — uncertain, Cai Rui stamped his foot along with the others. The Prince inclined his head graciously and folded his wings, reclining in the space that had been left for him at the table. His entourage rolled his hidden cart into place at the table at his right side and then stepped back soundlessly, taking an unobtrusive place behind him.
Che'zokin made a long liquid stream of clicks and chatter, and Cai Rui lowered his eyes. He had never learned to speak Hiver, although some members of his team had been more proficient. His chest ached for Thatcher at that moment — she had been so good with Hiver transmissions.
Ishii's voice sounded in his brain, terminating his line of thought. Apologies. The word was couched in a bed of emotion — the Liir's mildly embarrassed remorse, along with a sense of pity and sympathy. Your mind is bleeding again.
It still took a conscious act of will not to look at Ishii when the Liir spoke telepathically. Cai Rui kept his eyes focused on the Prince. I forget that you hear.
Ishii's presence in his mind went cooler and darker, murky with the sense of impending threat. Others will hear as well, when the enemy is near. You must learn to bleed...selectively. Then, changing the subject, she added: If you wish to know, the Prince thanks his Children for their respect. He offers sympathy and remorse for their pain. He promises that there is hope.
Pain? Cai Rui stared blandly ahead, but in his mind he frowned. What pain? What hope?
This room is filled with rage. Ishii's mental voice was quiet. Reach out and you will feel it.
Curious, Cai Rui attempted the exercise, opening his mind to the atmosphere of the room. Instantly he felt it wash over him, like a wave of terrible heat from a great fire — rage and more rage, hatred so deep and intense that it was almost sickening, agonies of humiliation and shame, grief that went beyond speaking. He recoiled instantly and slammed his mind shut, but not before he had seen himself through Hiver eyes: a weak, flabby, freakish thing, soft and squirming and unclean. How could such a creature be of any help—?
The Prince extended one of his limbs toward Cai Rui and another toward Ishii, speaking in Tarkasian. Its voice was deeper even than that of the warrior, but strangely smooth and pleasant, like a bow drawn across the strings of a great cello. As he spoke, one of the workers present softly echoed his speech in Hiver for the rest of the clan's leaders. “Welcome, new friends. We thank you for coming.” Turning to Sara, it said, “We have enriched the air for your visit. We hope it pleases.”
“Very much so, old friend.”
“Will you translate words for our other guest?” he asked. “We regret we have not learned the speaking of his language.”
Sara hesitated and glanced at Cai Rui.
“That will not be necessary,” Cai Rui said, taking the cue. “I speak Tarkasian well enough.”
The Prince turned toward him. “We are pleased. There is much to say and little time.”
“Sara Mak'Kona has informed us of your situation. We have invited you here to explain our terms.”
Cai Rui stiffened. “Terms? I thought these were already agreed.”
Sara spoke up. On the floor behind her, her tail gave a single twitch of agitation. “You said nothing of new 'terms' when I contacted you.”
Che'zokin inclined his head. “We regret to say that our circumstances have changed.”
Two young Tarka half–rose from their seats, but the Changed male at Sara's side waved them down with a tilt of his head. Sara glanced at him and then looked back to Cai Rui. She shrugged, as if to say, it's up to you.
Cai Rui showed the Prince his palms. “We are listening, Majesty.”
Che'zokin spread his wings. “It is only a small change. All will proceed as we had previously agreed. With one exception: I wish to participate directly.”
A silence followed, and Cai Rui waited for the Prince continue. When it was awkwardly clear that Che'zokin was waiting for a response, he said at last, “I'm afraid I don't understand.”
“My sons and I will do as you ask. But I wish to accompany you on the mission. When we reach the ship, I will take command. Regardless of the outcome, in the end I will be there.”
A rattle of voices suddenly rose from the Hiver faction, as several workers and warriors spoke up at once. The Prince turned and silenced them with a thunderous rattle of his wings and a harsh, throaty command.
Cai Rui spoke quietly in Tarka. “Your people are concerned, of course. They see no need for a person of your stature to risk his own safety.”
As the words he had spoken were echoed in Hiver, the room went deadly silent. All eyes turned toward him, and the Prince lowered his head. Cai Rui remained very still — the posture was eerily similar to the stance a Hiver warrior would assume directly before the charge.
“Forgive me if I have spoken out of turn, Prince Che'zokin.” He kept his voice soft and even. “This plan is highly dangerous and may lead, at best, to the deaths of many. I would not wish my own father to accompany me. I can only assume that your own sons feel the same.”
A murmur passed through the crowd, and he saw Sara's eyes flash joyfully across the table. The Prince visibly relaxed, letting his wings half-fold. “You are not mistaken. They fear for my life.”
“As do I.”
There is more, Ishii warned. He holds back the rest. The Queen has expressly forbidden this thing — if he leaves this planet, he will act against direct orders.
Che'zokin cocked his head curiously, and Cai Rui continued. “The peace between our people is very fragile, Prince. You are a son of the High Queen. Has Her Majesty given Her blessing to this venture? If not, what price will my people pay if you are killed?”
The silence in the council chamber was deafening. When at last the Prince spoke, his voice had lowered an octave. “Lan Mak'Kona is the son of an Emperor. His sister was a mate of the Supreme. Do you fear reprisal from the Tarka empire, should they fall in battle?”
Cai Rui's gaze was level. “I did not intend to have them aboard my ship.”
The Prince spread his wings wide, and they trembled as he spoke — a silvery whisper of growing anger. “And what of this one?” He indicated Ishii with a swift flick of the forelimb. “Does your Liirian ally have no value to the Liir? And what of you? Will your own leader smile at your demise?” He crossed his forelimbs, his naked blades gleaming in the golden light.
Cai Rui lowered his eyes. “I cannot speak for Ishii. But I am a person of no consequence, Prince.”
The wings rattled, and a soft murmur passed through the Hivers at the table. “Nor was I, when my life began. I am called Che'zokin — The Most Faithful. It is not the name of a pureborn Prince. These wings were my reward, for service to my people.”
The Prince rose from the table, standing to his full height. “Let us speak plainly,” he said. “None of us wish to die. None of us are expendable. And neither were the millions who were taken from us while our empires raged uselessly against one another. We have warred until our people are exhausted — and all the while we ignored an enemy that hid in the darkness, striking from the shadows to plunder every undefended nest.”
The Prince lowered his head. “You ask what will Our Mother will say, if Her son is lost in battle? I do not know. She said nothing when a million other sons were taken, and I asked for the ships to seek this new foe and root them out. She said nothing when her own sister was taken from this planet, and I asked for the funds to pay her ransom to these ones you call “Rippers”. She said nothing when I begged her to return me to the fleet, so that I might seek the devils who had taken my mate and enslaved my children. And she says nothing when the remains of our beloved Princess are returned to us in this charming box.”
He turned and yanked the brocade drapery from the cart beside him. It was a crystal tank, filled with clear fluid, lit softly with a blue ultraviolet glow. Inside floated the unmistakable skull of a female Hiver, every inch of flesh picked from the beautifully intricate skull. Only the golden filigree of metal attached to her crest remained.
A soft keen went through the Hiver faction, a high-pitched sigh of pain. Cai Rui needed no tricks to feel the mood in the room.
“You ask what Greatmother will say? Perhaps it is time for Her not to speak, but to listen. Let Her receive this message, before we depart: Che'Zokin remains faithful, but he is no longer a Prince.”
Once again the Hiver crossed his forelimbs, placing blade on blade. This time, the embrace of his own slender body was much tighter. Hugging his chest, he reached behind himself and grasped the roots of his massive wings.
Cai Rui rose from his chair, as did several Hivers. The sound of breaking chitin and rending flesh was terrible, like a tree being ripped from the ground. Horribly, one of the wings was more stubborn than the other — the prince wrestled with it for several seconds before it finally tore free.
Reeling, the Prince hurled his wings onto the table. “I have spoken. Let my clan brothers send this gift to my Mother, before we depart. Tell her that I have gone to war — that I will drag Her enemies into the light whether She wills it or not.”
“Tell I will love Her always. But I am Che'zokin — a person of no consequence.”
Despite himself, Cai Rui's eyes filled tears. He bowed low. “Your terms are more than fair.”
Sara and her brother rose.
“Let us depart.”